Jim Plehn was the avalanche forecaster at Alpine Meadows ski resort in 1982 when the deadliest snowslide in U.S. history claimed seven victims, a tragedy for which he still feels partially responsible.
Steve Siig and Jared Drake's documentary, "Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche," revisits the tragedy through the eyes of Plehn and his contemporaries, exploring their oversights before the natural disaster, their painful recollection of its aftermath, Plehn's subsequent efforts to make avalanche-prone slopes safer for skiers and his outlook 41 years later.
The 2021 film made its Netflix debut last month, shooting to the top of the streaming platform's documentary category.
Plehn, then 33, was promoted from a ski patrolling role to a chief avalanche forecaster at the resort, located on the California side of Lake Tahoe. He played a pivotal part in developing the vacation spot's avalanche protocols that were, in his painful recollection, lacking.
"I have mused on it a long time — 'Why wasn't it me, why wasn't I in the way of that avalanche?'" Plehn told filmmakers. "You know, how did I deserve to survive it?"
After a four-day, late-season storm dumped 90 inches of snow on the resort's base area that March 31, the slopes were closed for a day because of extreme avalanche danger. But several employees remained on site in a small building at the base of the main chairlift.
Around 3:45 p.m., a fissure nearly 10 feet deep and 2,900 feet across split the snowpack, sending a wall of snow that destroyed an entire building and buried the Alpine Meadows parking lot.
Plehn and, later, attorneys in a negligence lawsuit brought against the resort by injured victims, said the parking lot should have been closed. After the tidal wave of snow, the lot was covered in 11 to 12 feet of snow.
"In hindsight, we should have closed the parking lot to all access," Plehn told the filmmakers. "We felt, or at least we hoped, that we were keeping up with the storm."
"There was no indication to the paper in the area, the people that had gone up to rent condos for the weekend, that there was avalanche danger," the victims' attorney recalled. "There was no gate that was put up to keep people going into the parking lot. There was no sign that said ‘do not enter.’ This was an accident waiting to happen."
Among the victims was 22-year-old Anna Conrad, a resort chairlift operator who lost a leg to severe frostbite. Her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, died by her side.
Conrad spent 117 hours under a foot of snow waiting to be rescued. Finally, a trained German shepherd named Bridget alerted searchers to her presence, according to The Sacramento Bee.
She was in a small building at the bottom of the resort's chairlift. The debris of the structure created an air pocket that allowed her to survive. Typically, survivors in an avalanche are unlikely to survive after 20 minutes buried under snow due to trauma and suffocation, according to the outlet.
Three of her colleagues working at the resort, including 22-year-old Beth Morrow and 27-year-old Jake Smith, perished in the avalanche.
Dr. Leroy James Nelson of Eureka, California, had been vacationing at the resort with his wife, son and daughter. Nelson, his friend David Hahn and 11-year-old Lauri Nelson were buried in the parking lot as they walked to the main lodge to buy provisions, the Placer County Sheriff's Office announced at the time.
Two equipment operators saw the snow overtake them, making for a quick recovery of their bodies.
Bernie Kingery, a more experienced avalanche controller, was killed in the resort's Base 4 room. When his body was found, per Unofficial Alpine, his fist was frozen in a position that indicated he died trying to punch upward through debris trapping him.
This left Plehn to endure questions and accusations about Alpine Meadows' protocols by himself. In California's Placer County, Plehn claimed, he holds the record for longest period of time questioned on the stand at trial —11 days.
Others buried in the slide were Randy Buck, Tad DeFelice and Jeff Skover, according to the documentary. The young resort employees were quickly extricated alive from the building, but efforts to locate survivors and corpses lasted nearly a week.
One hundred rescuers, led by Plehn, dug through the snow, switching on headlamps after the sun set as they raced against the freezing conditions. At one point, Plehn told Outside, he had to call off the search for their own safety, a decision he said was the most difficult he'd ever made in his life.
Ultimately, a jury ruled that Plehn and the ski patrol were not at fault for the deaths, according to Outside. The court declared the nightmare was an "unprecedented event resulting from an unprecedented storm."
"That was a huge healing moment for me. I don’t feel that we made any mistakes, and a jury agreed with that. But it has occurred to me: What if the verdict went the other way?" Plehn told Outside.
"A big part of the film is talking about PTSD and the effects of an incident like this on the people involved, especially the rescuers," Plehn told the outlet. "As Jared and Siig started working with us, they could see the imprint of PTSD on each of us. They realized this wasn’t just a story about an avalanche. The after-effects were important, too."
After the avalanche, according to the documentary, Plehn developed a state-of-the-art avalanche control program still used at Alpine Meadows and other resorts.
But avalanches still plague the resort near Lake Tahoe. According to area outlet 2 News, 34-year-old Cole Comstock died in another incident in January 2019. Another man was left with serious lower body injuries. The resort said the two men were skiing in an "in-bounds" area and not breaking any laws.
Although avalanches generally occur in backcountry areas, according to Ski California, falling victim to the freezing forces of nature is "an inherent risk of the sport."
Since 2010, per the organization, 5% of all U.S. avalanche fatalities have involved victims who were skiing or snowboarding in areas marked as "in bounds" by ski resorts. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 30 people died due to avalanches last winter.